Thomas Harding: JQ-Wingate 2015 Nominee

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JQ: How does it feel to be shortlisted for the JQ-Wingate Prize?

Harding: It feels terrific! Over the course of the six years of writing Hanns and Rudolf there were many moments in which I believed that the book would never be published. To be recognised by the judges of the Wingate Prize is that much more extraordinary. It is humbling.

JQ: What inspired you to write Hanns and Rudolf?

Harding: This book was very much a personal journey, it started with the discovery at my great Uncle Hanns’ funeral that he had tracked down and caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz. Up till this point, I hadn’t heard of this story. I was thrilled, but also curious why nobody had spoken of it before.

JQ: Do you have any book recommendations for people interested in Jewish literature? Are you reading anything interesting currently? (does not strictly need to be of Jewish interest)

Harding: I am currently writing a book about a house outside of Berlin so I am reading a pile of books about German history during the twentieth century. Of particular interest are Stasiland, by Anna Funder; Faust’s Metropolis by Alexandra Richie; and Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. While these books are fascinating, perhaps even more interesting are the interviews that I have conducted with people who have lived through history, as well as their first-hand accounts. For instance, I recently was sent the unpublished memoir of my grandfather’s uncle, in which he describes being tortured in Berlin by the Gestapo before being sent to Theresienstadt from which he survived and emigrated to the USA.

JQ: How far could you develop an understanding of both Rudolf Höss and Hanns Alexander and what can we learn from such understanding?

Harding: When I started this project, I was very much interested in my uncle’s story. Did he capture the Kommandant? How did he do it? Why did he do it? Then I learned more about Rudolf Höss and I became fascinated by his life. How does one become a Kommandant? What was his family background? Did he ever feel sorry for what he had done? At first, I thought of these two characters as ‘Hanns and Höss’. By using the kommandant’s last name I was able to limit him to a two-dimensional monster and, in this way, able to keep the horrors at a distance. But then, I realised that this approach limited my understanding. To better grasp the kommandant’s story, I had to view him from a personal perspective. To achieve this, I tracked down members of his family. I was shocked that his daughter thought of him as ‘the kindest father in the world’. It was then that I realised that this was a human story, that we are all capable of both good and evil, and it is only by making the right choices, by remaining vigilant, that we can avert calamity from happening again.

The Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize is an annual literary prize inaugurated in 1977, named after the prize’s founder Harold Hyam Wingate. It is the only UK award to recognise writing by Jewish and non-Jewish writers that explores themes of Jewish concern in any of its possible forms. The 2015 winner will be announced on 4 March at a prize event at JW3 and will receive £4,000. 

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